Bobby Bell Made It Look Easy

The path to the NFL is certainly difficult enough for the modern athlete, but imagine breaking into the league in 1963 as a low-round draft pick, having to learn a new position, and then finding yourself in a community that did not accept you because of your color. Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Famer Bobby Bell had to endure strong opposition from a local community that was not willing to bend from their prejudiced ways.

When you think of great linebackers in the NFL, many have been immortalized since the 60s. A few players come to mind such as Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and in the modern era, Ray Lewis and of course Derrick Thomas. But pound for pound one of the greatest to ever play in the NFL played nine seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. Back in the 1960s and 70s, Bobby Bell was the showcase linebacker on a team that had the likes of fellow Hall of Fame inductees Willie Lanier and Len Dawson.

But Bell was a long way from his roots in Shelby, North Carolina when he moved to Kansas City after an All-American career at the University of Minnesota. Bobby Bell had to endure a gripping prejudice that, despite it's ferocity, never unsettled his foundation for himself or his family. It wasn't easy, especially when he wanted to buy a home in Leawood in Johnson County Kansas. He was blackballed, persecuted, and despite his status as an upstanding citizen, he was followed by police and pulled over in his car for no reason when he drove near the state line that separates Kansas and Missouri.

I saw first-hand the impact that Bobby Bell had in my neighborhood, since he lived just a few houses from me when I was young. From my perspective as a young boy, I was shocked by how the adults in my neighborhood treated a man that I looked up to. I considered both Bobby Bell and his son Bobby Bell, Jr., who was my classmate at Trailwood Elementary, as my friends.

The first time that Bobby Bell, Jr. came into my house, he was greeted by my Mother. He asked her for a glass of water and my mother went to the cupboard, grabbed a glass, and filled it with water. The younger Bell then reached into his pocket and gave my Mother a quarter.

My mother said, "What's that for?" Bobby said, ‘It's for the glass.' For months after he moved into my neighborhood whenever Bobby Jr. went to a house in the neighborhood and asked for a glass of water, they would charge him a quarter for the glass that he used. Most of the neighbors at the time simply discarded the glass into the trashcan.

Needless to say my Mother and I were appalled and that was the first time in my life that I encountered prejudices first hand. It was not easy to understand, since he was my friend. But the Bell family had to swallow their pride. It was so bad in the early days for Bell that then head coach Hank Stram, a neighbor to both of us, had to go with Bobby Bell to the local Safeway to buy groceries because they would not sell him food at first.

Back in the mid-60s, players in the NFL did not live off their AFL salaries. Bobby Bell was working full time at the General Motors plant in Kansas City, playing football for the Chiefs, and trying to adjust to a city that had yet to open their arms to some of the players. There were places that the Bell's family could go in town but in suburban Johnson County it was a struggle.

"I told Hank Stram that I was having trouble finding a house. I wanted to get my kids in a good school and I looked at 200 houses. I can't find one of them. The Coach didn't believe me. Every time I looked at a house, they told me it was sold. I told them that I had money to put down and they told me the house had sold in the middle of the night. I would go late in the afternoon and be the last person at an open house and when I walked in it was sold," said Bell.

"When I was able to find a house people would say they'd give me a loan but when I gave them the address (in Johnson County, Kansas) the loan became shaky and it would not close. In 1968 the fair lending practices changed for housing but no one paid any attention to it so I had a difficult time finding a loan."

But that didn't stop him from trying to find a house, despite attempts of the neighborhood associations that fought to keep him and his family out. He finally found a house that he loved and wanted to buy. So Bobby went and met the builder in his own home near Swope Parkway.

"He told me that he and his wife talked about it and we decided to sell you the house. I said ok, you have a deal. But that left me with another problem—getting a loan. I had a house in Minnesota near White Bear Lake and I called someone there and he said that he'd give me a loan. He said that he could not believe that I could not get a loan in the area," Bell told me.In the interim, the builder allowed Bell to move into the house even without the financing secured.

"The builder said, ‘Just give me a couple of hundred dollars a month and just move into the house. Have your lawyer write a little contract.' I did, and had a moving van pull up to the house and I moved into the neighborhood."

When that happened the neighbors were irate. They thought the property values in the neighborhood would drop and would call meetings that did not include Bell.

"It got to the point when I moved in they started passing out flyers to have a neighborhood watch meeting to talk about this situation. Well one day when they passed out the flyers they put one on my door. So I'm in the neighborhood and I decided to go to the meeting. When they had the meeting, I knocked on the door they opened it and I introduced myself as Bobby Bell and I bought this house and I heard we had a meeting. The guy paused and didn't know what to say. The people in the meeting didn't know what to say. It got all quiet. No one said anything. It was unbelievable so I sat down. The guy running the meeting said that he was expecting a lot more people so we'll have to postpone the meeting for another day so we can make a decision."

Looking back, it's funny to Bobby Bell now but he said the he found out later the sole purpose for the meeting was to decide how to get him out of the neighborhood. Though some of the neighbors had no problem with Bell it was later learned that the prominent developer JC Nichols were the ones who spawned the panic since they didn't want their development communities to lose value.

"Before talking to the builder direct, I gave the real estate man a check for $1,200 for the house that I eventually moved into. He couldn't believe it. It was his first week on the job. He sold his first house; he did the paperwork and went back to the office. I sold the house on Delmar. I sold it to a Chiefs' player. Here's a check and the man who runs the real estate office asked the agent whom he sold it to. He told him that it was Bobby Bell. The manager of the office came back a couple hours later and told the real estate agent that he couldn't sell the house to him. I found this out years later. After a week, I called the agent back because I did not hear from him. He kept telling me that everything was ok and not to worry. In fact, he called the builder and told him that he had sold a house."

But things turn south in a hurry. One of the executives of General Motors and the builder met with Bobby on the plaza for lunch. "He told me that he could not sell me the house," said Bell.

He was floored but eventually the builder agreed to let him move into the house and he found a mortgage company that gave him a loan. Under the pre-dawn light, he met the lender at his office and he agreed to help him. "He looked at my papers and told me face to face that he had no problem with giving me a loan. My wife and I signed the papers on the spot and I had my bags packed in the car because I was heading toward Miami for a USO stop. He told me to go ahead and go and that he would get the final papers to my wife. I got into Miami later that night and at 1:00 in the morning my wife called me to tell me that we got the loan."

"It was strange we still had some problems in the neighborhood but I got Buck Buchanan to move in the neighborhood and then Willie Lanier also moved out south." Still, despite the acceptance of some of the neighbors, Bell encountered the local Leawood police department virtually every time he drove his car down 95th street between Mission and State Line road.

"Every day I went down there the Leawood police would pull me over. They'd check me out and then let me go. Once I got to the state line a mile down the road and they'd pull me over again. I finally had a talk with them and we got that straightened out. The thing was I didn't mind. I was glad they were watching my house," howled Bell. "I knew nobody was going to steal anything out of my house because the police were around me all the time. I had great protection. Everyone knew on that corner when I left my house. When I drove they stopped even if I went around the corner to the local convenience store. To avoid being stopped sometimes I'd walk up through the Kenilworth Apartments which were across the street."

But looking back at the time, he had a lot of great friends who stood by him and as time passed he developed long bonding relationships with many people inside and outside of the community.

Once that happened, everything changed in the neighborhood. Bobby and his family got to know the next-door neighbors, he put in one of the first pools in the neighborhood in his backyard and the true character of Bobby Bell shined. His open pool policy to the kids in the neighborhood was better than any local country club pool. We could swim in the pool anytime we wanted as long as we cleaned up our mess and we didn't touch the Honda Chopper Motorcycle in the garage. It was a secret that he kept from Hank Stram. The "Mentor" didn't want his players getting hurt and Hank would not have approved of the motorcycle in his garage. Bell rarely rode it, and when he did, he didn't stray too far from the house.

But the pool was a playground for the kids. We'd simply knock on the door when he was home and ask to swim or when he was out of town go through the unlocked back gate and jump in the pool. One night after he came home from being out of town, a young man named Tom decided to have a party at Bell's house. Months before that night Tom begged Bell to let him cut his grass. Tom simply wanted the notoriety and to tell the other neighbors that Bobby Bell was his client.

"He told me that he wanted to cut my grass. No, I can cut my own grass. I won't charge you anything. I'm just starting off my lawn mowing business. Finally I relented after he wouldn't take no for an answer. At the time all he wanted was to make enough money to pay off his lawn mower. After we got done talking he noticed that I had a swimming pool. He said can my brother and me go swimming in your pool. You know me—I let everyone go swimming. So I said go ahead. No problem," said Bell.

"One night I came home; it was dark. I went out back and opened up my patio doors and I said, ‘Tom how are you doing?'" said Bell. "Oh, Mr. Bell we thought you were out of town. We'll leave. I said you all go ahead. Man you got a lot of kids here I told Tom. They must have had at least 13 brothers and sisters in the pool and they were having a ball. They cleaned up when they were done and that was fine with me."

To this day, Bobby Bell is still friends with his next-door neighbors and they would clean out his pool and keep the place up because they were gone so much. A lot changed in the neighborhood and lot of that change had to do with Bobby Bell. "Those were good times. But still when I wanted to go to a nice restaurant downtown, I couldn't get a reservation for dinner. The thing is that everyone turned out for the best."

For Bobby Bell it was also a great time because unlike some other professional athletes who have graced the sports stage, he chose to remain in Kansas City after he retired.

"We ended up winning the championship here and the fans here turned out to be some of the greatest fans in the country. I didn't leave. It was bad at first but it turned out for the best and it's a great place to raise a family. Look around and most of the guys are still around Kansas City," Bell said.

"I enjoy Kansas City. I do a lot of things here and I made a lot of friends here. By the time I look back it and I was drafted by the Dallas Texans and that's where it all started," Bell states proudly.

Bell was a standout linebacker at the University of Minnesota. He began his career as a quarterback, moved to defensive end, and settled in at linebacker. The then-Texans drafted Bell in the sixth round of the draft in the old AFL and the hometown Vikings selected him in the third round in the well-established NFL.

The choice was a no-brainer for Bell, who was miffed that the Vikings never tried as hard to sign him out of college. "They assumed that I'd sign with them but they never sent over a contract."

So Bell accepted an invitation from team owner Lamar Hunt to be a part of the Chiefs. Bell was sold without ever stepping foot in Dallas to meet personally with Lamar Hunt.

"I didn't have time to meet with him. I was an All-American and went to the east coast to appear on the Ed Sullivan show so I never took him up on his offer to visit. I just wanted to play football. So they ended up moving to Kansas City the year I was drafted and I went straight from Minnesota. I never met Coach Stram."

So Lamar Hunt took the initiative. Bell enlisted a family attorney friend to negotiate a contract. In those days players got whatever the team was offering and they had to find ways to supplement their income.

When I asked Bobby Bell about his first contract he quipped, "We don't want to talk about that." Still he needed representation and he found a friend who could help him negotiate a contract. According to Bell the contract was long and he didn't know what to do. "My friend asked me what do I need to live of off and I said, ‘I don't know.'"

So as the discussion went on, Bobby was hoping for $20,000. His friend asked how much he made the previous year. Bell told him about $5,000. His friend said he didn't need more than that. "I think I never earned more than $9,000 bucks a year. He said ‘that's all you need' and I said ‘What about the rest of the money?'" His friend told him they'd "work that out." In the end Bell deferred some of the money and went out and found a full time job.

After the realization that he was not going to strike it rich with the Chiefs, he ended up taking a job with General Motor. He took his vacation time during training camp and convinced his supervisors to allow him to start his job at 5:00 in the morning so he could be on the practice field by 3:00. At GM, Bell had a job that served him well working in their labor relations department. He laid people off and routinely tracked down employees who missed work with bogus pink slips from doctors. His nickname at GM was "Sherlock Holmes."

"I'd go out to their houses and knock on doors and they ask me how I found them. I'd ask the mailman where some of them lived and they would say to me. ‘Yeah I know where he lives.' In fact I found the doctor that was on our preferred list and his office was like a revolving door with our workers. I counted at least 250 guys that went through that office from 6:00 to 9:00. There was no way that he could see that many people. Finally I wrote a report to Detroit and we no longer accepted injury slips from him," said Bell.

He also acted as a liaison with employees and their supervisors. In fact, he often relieved supervisors on the floor at the plant. He wore many hats and he was as hard nosed at General Motors as he was on the football field. He was the perfect enforcer and in fact he was so good at his job that the executives in Detroit asked him to transfer three times to other plants around the country. Bell turned them down and the last transfer request would have set Chiefs fans ablaze. They wanted him to move to their facility in Freemont California outside of Oakland. "I thought to myself ‘Man, they're going to trade me to Oakland.'" That obviously never happened, but Bobby Bell had nothing but fond memories about his 14 years at General Motors.

But with everything that happened in Kansas City, Bobby Bell could not say enough about Lamar Hunt and his contributions to himself and the rest of us in the AFL. "He was the best thing that every happened to NFL football. I thank God that I was part of it. Before that there were not that many blacks in the NFL. In the highlight reels of the 50s, you had two here or three there. I think in 1966 or 1967 Bobby Mitchell was one of the first blacks to play with the Washington Redskins. You have to remember at that time they (the NFL) didn't recruit blacks at colleges like Grambling and Morgan State where (Willie) Lanier played. He'd have never gotten an opportunity if it wasn't for the AFL."

In fact, according to Bobby Bell, his friend and teammate Willie Lanier wanted to play middle linebacker. The old-school NFL according to Bell would never allow a black man to play that position in the NFL. "You name a black middle linebacker in that era besides Willie." The only one we came up with together after Lanier was Mike Singletary formerly of the Bears but that was well after Lanier's career ended.

For Bell he had a twinkle in his voice when he starts talking about Lanier and the rest of his linebacker teammates. "I tell you what, I talk to people about our teams and the guys that I played with. Back then it was like a family. We came in here and the whole thing in the AFL. We were all a family. Playing with guys like Jim Lynch and Buck (Buchanan). If you see us out somewhere visiting today with players from other teams in the AFL, we got along. When we go out on the field we're all fighting. And as soon as we're off the field, we got along but the fans never understood that."

Of course the perception of Chiefs' fans, especially when Bell talked about the Raiders, was nowhere close to how all the AFL players felt about each other. "It was not hatred. We played the game very intense. Talk about the cutting edge. If we didn't have a fight we weren't up for the game."

That of course spawned the fateful day when the Chiefs and Raiders battled to a 17-17 tie. It was the game that saw Buck Buchanan lift Darryl Lamonica up off the ground and slam him headfirst into the ground. That was also the infamous game when Otis Taylor, Len Dawson, and the Raiders' Ben Davidson had their altercation.

"You know I had dinner with George Blanda and we were talking about (that game). Players like Ted Hendrickson and Willie Brown. In fact when I saw him I gave him a big hug. He's part of the family. We'd talk about our families. The thing is if anyone attacked the whole AFL that's what I'm talking about. When we would go to functions with the NFL, their players would ask me ‘What it is about you guys?'"

What people didn't understand at the time was how hard the teams fought. The AFL was successful but the established NFL didn't have to fight as hard. Instead, the new league formed a bond that miraculously has stayed strong to this day. "We were fighting for our lives. They (the NFL) thought we were going to go away," said Bell. According to Bell the AFL members even to this day remain close. They were the upstarts and they appreciated the opportunity that NFL refused to give players like Bell. Chiefs' fans would be shocked to learn that most of the players on opposing teams would actually get together the night before and all go out, have dinner and talk. But on the field, for three hours on Sunday, they hated each other.

"We brought excitement to the league. Coach Stram invented the moving pocket, the triple stack, the stuff that Lawrence Taylor ran. That's how I moved to linebacker." In fact it was coach Stram who made the decision to add a fourth linebacker. According to Bell, Stram was known more for his offensive genius but he knew his way around the defensive side of the ball.

As he was talking about Hank Stram, he paused. You could see a gleam in his eye as we talked about our former neighbor. For old-time Chiefs' fans, the amount of respect that Bell and all his players continue to have for "The Mentor" is rare in sports. In fact, Bell made it known that he was not happy it took so long for Stram to get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"He was blackballed by the NFL. You know Coach is not doing so well," Bell remarked. "I think the fact that he wore that microphone in the Super Bowl had something to with it. People thought he was arrogant and almost like he was predicting the outcome. The old NFL didn't care for it." To Chiefs' fans, it was a classic moment in the history of the NFL and if you ask Steve Sabol, President of NFL Films, he'll tell you it was their finest hour and it launched NFL Films into the powerhouse it is today.

Still, Bell wished that the induction of his coach had happened ten or fifteen years earlier when Stram could appreciate his accomplishments and he could receive the due accolades that he deserved. Most Chiefs' fans feel the exact same way.

For Bell, the players in Kansas City and the schemes are what set himself and his teammates apart from the rest of the AFL teams. "It's not like today. We'd line up, see what the offense was doing and we'd call a different play at the line of scrimmage. Now teams will call timeout and run nickel defenses. I tell people all the time that when I played, I loved to play the game but also to know the game. Be knowledgeable; know the other team. I wanted to know what the other guy had for lunch the day before. In order for me to do that, you had to study the film. If he had habits, I wanted to pick them up. So when I go out on that field, I don't have to think about it, I know what they're going to do. When you start thinking about the play it would be gone. So you have to feel comfortable about what you're doing. If you're not than you didn't do your homework."

Bell also had some harsh words for some of the athletes today who aren't prepared. "It's amazing to me especially with all those players who make that kind of money. What really upsets me is the players don't know where to go. A quarterback might check off a play and they won't know how to play it. So they have to call timeout because they have the wrong personnel on the field. If you're in a situation, you should know enough about the game that the defensive player should know what to do against any offensive play."

It was simple for Bell. Preparation was his key but what many people forget is that Bell was an amazing athlete and that had a lot to do with his success. No matter what he did growing up, he excelled at it. He played basketball and admitted to me that baseball was his first love. In fact he could have played minor league ball for the Chicago White Sox in the late 1950s.

His father, Pink Bell, told him that he would support his decision about giving up football in high school and forgiving a chance to go to college. But deep down, Bell loved football even though baseball held his passion. Still, back in the late 50s not many big time college programs were recruiting black athletes.

When he was being recruited by the University of Minnesota, they asked the track coach at a local white high school to time Bell's speed. He ran short distances and long distances and he whipped up on the school's best runners. When they asked him to throw the football, the North Carolina All-State quarterback threw spirals in excess of 60 yards. Nobody had seen an athlete like Bell and though he did not know it at the time, he could have gone to any college he wanted. Even though he loved playing quarterback, the University of Minnesota already had an amazing black quarterback by the name of Sandy Stephens. Bell was a realist and everyone knew about Stephens. He was an All-American quarterback who led the Gophers to their first National Championship in 1961. Because quarterback was not a need at Minnesota, they wanted Bell to play defense.

So when Golden Gophers head coach Murray Warmath sent Bell a plane ticket, he took a chance and flew up to the Minneapolis area. Not sure that he wanted to play that far away from home, Bell fell in love with the campus. It was a mighty big step from playing six on six in high school to a big time college program. "I called my Dad and told him this was the place. It was beautiful," Bell said.

On January 1, 1962, Bell and his teammates destroyed the UCLA Bruins in the Rose Bowl. The next year Bell was the recipient of the Outland Trophy and was a parade All-American. He was so highly regarded that Warmath was convinced that Bell was one of the most gifted and amazing players of his era and for that matter of all time.

"He was the greatest (defensive) linemen that I'd ever seen," Warmath said to the local Minnesota media. That following spring the Chiefs took a flyer on Bell in the seventh round despite their certainty that he was a lock to sign with the Minnesota Vikings. But Bell was sold on Lamar Hunt and that was that.

Bell played from 1963-1974 with the Chiefs and from 1964-1972 appeared in nine straight Pro Bowls. Bell was capable of playing any position on the field and acted as the Chiefs deep-snapper on special teams. He was the first Chief to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and his name proudly appears on the "Ring of Honor" in Arrowhead Stadium.

Today, Bell enjoys speaking across the country. Despite two hip replacements, he still enjoys golf outings for NFL charities and still enjoys playing baseball. One of his closest friends is legendary Minnesota Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew and Ferguson Jenkins.

"I started playing in baseball charity games in Scottsdale, Arizona with players like Gaylord Perry. When I first started, I was the only football player. Harmon asked me to play. So he asked me to come down and play golf and baseball for the Boys Club. I have a baseball uniform that has Royals on it. They asked me what position I wanted to play and I said ‘shortstop.' So I ended up at second base. I played six innings that game. They couldn't believe it," said Bell.

He was so good that he quickly earned the respect of his new friends, who were in shock that Bell was so gifted at playing baseball. Through the years, Bell has many memorable moments but none meant more to him than one of his at-bats against Jenkins shortly after one of his hip replacements.

"Ferguson was pitching. I told him that I wanted him to smoke it. I came up to bat. This was two years ago. I was hitting the ball, sliding and everything. So he threw the ball and I tried to take him out of the park. We're going back and forth talking with each other and with the fans. I yelled at him ‘Let's go Fergie. Let's go,'" Bell chuckled.

"So he pitched it and I hit it and the outfielder went back and back and finally caught the ball at the fence. As I was rounding second I said ‘God Almighty!' Then Fergie said to me, ‘Hey what are you trying to do to me?' I said to him I thought he was going to throw the ball harder than he did. If he had put some heat on it I would have hit it out. He cracked up laughing and the 10,000 fans watching had a great laugh."

That story is what makes Bobby Bell so great. No one can say that Bobby Bell was cheated out of anything. He overcome so much and never lost his smile or spirit. With his soul intact he has made an indelible impression on numerous friends, teammates, and fans across the country. For me personally it was an amazing time to just sit down with Bobby Bell again and talk about those times living at 93rd & Delmar.

Back then all we cared about was playing football in the backyard, knocking the baseball around on the street corner, and being the first one to jump into Bobby Bell's pool. But for some of us it was so much more than that. I can remember the stories he would tell and the gregarious nature in which he showered us with stories that made us laugh. Though it had been years since we last saw each other, one thing is certain. Bobby Bell is still having fun.

But it was his heart and compassion for the kids in the neighborhood that left an the biggest impression on my life growing up in Prairie Village, Kansas. He opened up his heart to everyone in the neighborhood and to the community of Kansas City that finally tore away the color of his skin and judged him solely on the man that he was then and is today.

I wish every kid could have been in the neighborhood at that time. I'm just thankful that he was a part of my life and even more that he allowed me to be a part of his. Even today, Bobby Bell is a reminder of what all sports heroes should be and that is a true role model.

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